When I was a little kid, circumstances dictated that I usually did not have a gang to hang around with.
Not that I didn’t have friends. On the contrary: I’ve had some great pals over the years.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about:
The sign nailed to the telephone pole featured a kid-scribbled price list:
“Dogs for sale four dollars each the brown one is three dollars”
An entire dollar off? I couldn’t afford not to. I really hoped that Mom would see it that way.
She was not happy at all that I’d made the purchase, and she immediately told me to give the dog back. But when we returned to the scene of the crime, both the sign – as well as all of Cocoa’s brothers and sisters -were long gone. We both gave her the “sad eyes,” she gave in, and he came home to live with me.
He was my first best friend. To this day, from out of nowhere: a memory of his unique scent will flood my mind. It’s a nice kind of a smell, and for an instant, I’m seven years old again, and we’re doing what kids and dogs do: hanging around together, with no particular mission. Which just might be the entire point of kids and dogs.
After about a year, my mother explained that Cocoa was sick with a “dog disease,” and that he was going away to live in New York, on a farm with other dogs who had the same problem. I never got over it. But at least I got to say goodbye.
In the last days of fifth grade, a stranger followed me on my walk home from school.
Every day for a week.
No collar. No license. A little bit on the skinny side. And, this is the important part: there was not a single “LOST DOG” sign to be seen on the lampposts of the neighborhood. By Friday afternoon, I was scheming for a way to keep my tagalong waif.
We were best friends for ten years: from the Summer of Love, all the way to the last days of Disco. And when the time came that Lucky could no longer walk, we went for a car ride, and I learned the meaning of “you gotta do what you gotta do.” And I did. And I never got over it. But at least I got to say goodbye.
In the state that I lived in, greyhound racing was a legal and state-sponsored vehicle for separating people from their money.
I read an article about the sad and dangerous lives that these beautiful dogs led, and their fate, after their two-year racing career was over. I decided to do my very small part. I found a greyhound rescue organization and became the proud pet-parent of the not-at-all-ironically-named Speedy.
He was a silent and noble companion, who needed to be taught how to climb stairs. A half-can of tuna fish was a favorite treat, until it wasn’t, and when the veterinarian explained the reason why, it was time to make a decision. And once again, I did. And I never got over it. But at least I got to say goodbye.
I was doing research online one night seeking financial information about a Canadian province. You can just guess the kind of Googlelian rabbit hole I ended up in.
Yep: “Nunatsiavut” begets “Newfoundland,” which of course, steered me to Labrador…retriever… to a dog adoption site… and…
Turns out that it’s hereditary: I’m a sucker for sad eyes.
I took a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard to adopt Goodgirl. She enjoyed the ride back to the mainland, and just for fun, we made the trip an annual event for the next 11 years. When it was her time, it was very hard to do – but once again, I found myself saying goodbye. And I never got over it.
During the heyday of the pandemic, I again found myself pining for four-legged companionship. Enter: a homeless stray, found wandering the streets of Louisville.
It was an instant connection – I can’t put into words my empathic and perhaps irrational attachment to this dog. Such a great friend, to put up with all of my nonsense.
This past year, I’ve often spoke about the frequent travel required in my job. And whenever I go away, I always make a big deal about saying goodbye to my buddy. It’s a ritual; a little game that makes me feel better. “OK, gotta go. Goodbye. Now, you be good, and I’ll see you Saturday. Goodbye.”
Three weeks ago on a Monday night when I was 1200 miles from home, I got a call: something was terribly wrong with my dog. Her noble, sweet and loyal seven-year-old heart… stopped. And she died.
And as I tried to man-up and listen to the clinical explanation from the 24-hour emergency pet hospital vet, all I could think of was, “I’m too late. I’m always there when it’s time to say goodbye. But it’s too late.”
The guilt and shattering sadness, and the fact that I wasn’t present in her final moments has been haunting. I still think I hear her snoring in the middle of the night. Part of me hates it. And part of me hopes that it continues. For a little while longer, anyway.
I’ve said four times that “I’ll never get over it.” And in some ways, that could be true. But maybe there is a reason that I keep finding myself in the company of dogs, and finding myself filled with happiness for the too-brief time that our lives intersect. Perhaps I’m supposed to perpetually be a “dog person:” a caretaker for animals who need love. Maybe that’s my purpose. I’ll go with that theory for now.
And although at this moment, I’m feeling like, “I can never do this again,” we all know: of course I’m going to.
Because as hard as the “goodbyes” are:
I think that I owe it to my unknown, future best friend to try and come up with at least one more “hello.”